|Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?
|Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
This photographic image is an idol, a cross to be kissed, a totem to inspire the advancing armies of Christendom in the aesthetic crusade emanating its rays of godly truth upon the adoring crowds. It is a re-manifestation of a religious icon, one which claims not only its own truth, but that of the image which birthed it, concealing the acts of intention which created them both.
Both real (attached by its caption to a specific time and space) and spiritual (the pieta, icon of Christ’s eternal sacrifice and that of his flesh and blood mother) this photo is itself a theological manifestation of the dual nature of Christ in its form, attaching itself to the flesh (the Yemenite mother, post 9-11 political turmoil, Middle-East conflict) while making a spiritual argument (that of the image’s celestial reign). Just like the photo of The Madonna of Bentalha, the iconographic archetype is so forceful, so recognizable, that this re-imagination effaces every historical aspect which it purports to show – the individual, the Yemeni mother, the American war, the Petrol – to leave behind a surface covered with little more than the ever-living icon on Mary supporting Jesus in her arms, black burqa notwithstanding.
The proselyte photograph is neither an accident of vision nor an aesthetic translation from other cultures’ aesthetics to the Western one (for that would require the acknowledgement of another visual language) but rather a strategy, one whose goal is to render the other nonexistent.
Thus when American soldiers torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the prisoner’s suffering is not simply ridiculed by the mockery of the soldiers who took the photos, but obliterated entirely by the viewers (ourselves included), who can see nothing more than the Jesus-icon of crucifixion which is the only remaining visible image. The visual orthodoxy of the proselyte photograph and its concurrent insistence on image-truth submits the other into playing the role of the eternal victim (for who has ever seen an imagery of a sympathetic Judas? a generous Pontius Pilate? a heroic Pharisee?).
Thus the re-production of the pieta is a tactical deployment in a crusade which differs from the medieval crusades only in the field of its battles. Aranda’s image is the cross, and the cross is the frame – the rendering in perspective, the illusion of reality’s capture, the golden rectangle of 35mm, of the renaissance tableau, of Western truth.
Like the Holy Grail, the photographic image is a sought-after relic with Christ-vested powers. It can convert, heal and teach, and is no less charitable than the actions of missionaries in indigenous Amazonia, and no less an enslavement. For the image is the most important weapon in this crusade, and the quest for it is the most important movement in the ongoing religious war.
However, the image is directed as much at those who never venture beyond the safety of their living rooms as to the infidels to be converted. That is why such photographs are bestowed prize upon prize, hoisted aloft on headlines and extolled in exhibitions, for they confirm what we wish to see. The Madonnas and pietas and crucifixions that abound in photorealistic imagery are each and every one acts of concealment, acts of blinding. These image more than any other affirms the supremacy of the West, not in the image-content which matters little if at all, but in the form itself. One never sees photographs the reconstruct a Hindi form, a Jewish form, a Buddhist form, for the Christian theological icon is the only aesthetic history which photojournalism refers to.
The surface of Aranda’s photograph (the composition of mother and child, and the sought-after pathos that it should invoke) is there as a façade to hide its underlying theoretical structure – that of the continuing victory of the reigning aesthetic of the cross.
Although the pieta eclipses any image of the other, it does nonetheless reveal one important thing – Western humanism’s direct lineage from Christianity. The gaze which we lay upon the image is that of sympathy for its figures. When we look at the photograph we feel pity (indirectly through the pieta) for those anonymous beings who must suffer the misfortunes of war. Yet this sympathetic gaze which the photograph attempts to invoke is yet another form of Christian charity hiding its proselyting mission under a benevolent patina. The hypocrite sympathy of the charitable gaze which the image offers up to us, its viewer, and its corrupt and defunct sentimentality are subtle forms to enslave the event yet further to the ruling imagery.
Such icons take the narratives of the other and reduce their significance to the reaction we would have. The ‘charitable regard’ is the regard in which the power structure is absolutely clear – the other exists only for our eyes. This reduction leads the same humanism which provides charity to the other to establish power by offering infrastructural and financial ‘expertise’ when it is not unashamedly arming their oppressors if not rolling tanks through their lands.
The icon is not however impermeable. It contains sometimes the key to the secrets of its structures, slight anomalies which can be exploited against the will of culture in order to fragment its meaning, destroy its force, and bring forth the image hiding underneath.
A first anomaly appears in the surface-painting of this pieta photo when we examine the mother’s regard, or rather its lack. As we look at this photograph we are no longer seeing the pitiful and pathetic gaze of Mary thrown heavenward as she cradles her son’s corpse in her arms. The woman’s gaze is not only not returned to us, but entirely concealed behind her burqa. Thus her nakedness (the pathos one could ‘steal’ by photographing her gaze) is hidden from the immodest eye of the camera. With her human expression visible, her sorrow would be entirely ingested by the icon, would transmogrify into Mary’s own sorrow, just like in Hocine Zaourar’s Madonna photograph. Here however the dominant aesthetic cannot entirely subsume this incongruity, this article of clothing whose purpose is the refusal of imagery. Without a visage we can identify, without an expression of sorrow other than the one we can imagine, this Yemenite woman’s gaze, rendered invisible behind her shawl, remains hers and hers alone.
A second ‘blemish’ contaminates the image’s proselyte mission, cuts off its supply lines. The mother we see does not embrace her son in her hands, but only in latex gloves which refuse contact to her son’s body. Theologically speaking, these gloves (wittingly or un-) are a refusal of the blood which is the basis from which the Christian image is created. Without blood, the ritual of the blessed sacrament cannot be completed, the image cannot finish its incantation, and its energies begin to turn upon itself.
If the proselyte image is an icon which presents itself as a representation of truth, then the anomaly is the fissure which allows profanation to take place. But first, it must be sought out.